Following on from Ian Arkley’s two, a deeper delve into London’s Underground

Being pulled back in time and down into the London Underground when reviewing Ian Arkley’s two led not only to a couple of memories being stirred, but more so the discovery of a little known unsavoury World War II fact involving Winston Churchill.

A bittersweet memory of Kennington Station was alluded to in the review:

‘I remember coming out at Kennington numerous times thinking no one was checking tickets, almost throwing mine in a bin, only to see the staff member with that job leaning against the entrance so they could have a smoke. With the installation of an automatic ticket barrier came almost non existent staff, a gang hanging round the entrance at night to hassle people coming out and London getting a little bit more unbearable for it.’

The most memorable of those latter occasions saw me dropped of home in a police riot van. That’s the exciting bit. It was circa 1998 and I’d stayed in the City for a couple of drinks after work. It was between 8.30 and 9 p.m.. I took the elevator, those spiralling stairs never a good idea after a few drinks; there was one other person in it with me, a woman in her mid twenties who looked like she’d likewise been drinking after work.

(Images from Kennington: with thanks to the following for making their images available to use: exterior TheFrog001; platform left Sunil060902; platform right Andrew Bowden; train in tunnel Oast House Archive; platform clock Secretlondon; spiral stairs / side view of moving train Brian Howe)

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When reaching ground level she stepped out before me. This meant the gang at the entrance latched onto her. She turned onto Braganza Street at the side of the station; the way I was headed too. There were about fifteen kids aged between twelve and sixteen in a circle around her; she walked head down trying to ignore whatever they were saying.

I couldn’t hear as I’d purposefully dropped back. Mobile/cell phones were only just becoming a thing back then. I had one due to my job and was using it to call plod.

At the top of Braganza Street the woman turned left into Manor Place. The gang showed every intent of sticking with her until another couple of kids appeared walking out the flats on the right between Doddington Grove and Chapter Road; the gang suddenly ran across the road to give chase.

I’d been on the phone to plod the whole time; while in the process of telling them the gang had run off, a riot van full of coppers—pretty standard weekend policing around there back in those days—edged to a halt next to me. Walking along with a phone to my ear, it was obvious I was the caller.

They asked me to jump in to try help them find the gang, and after a little drive around that revealed nothing, dropped me off home. It struck me how little things can potentially make so much difference: if I’d been latched onto there would’ve been no chance to use the phone; if I’d stayed for another drink and the two kids who’d been chased hadn’t appeared, etc.

* *

I don’t remember exactly what caused it, so don’t recall the year; it might’ve been 1994 when Chelsea reached the FA Cup Final (only to lose dismally 0-4; and with a seat down the front, I got thoroughly soaked into the bargain). Or a few years later when the pitch was about to be moved slightly for a new stand. Whatever it was, the final whistle of the last home game of the season resulted in a well intentioned pitch invasion.

Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea F.C., as it was then: the Shed being specifically the thin roofed area on the right with a white wall; the sandy area between the terrace it’s on and the pitch where disabled fans were once allowed to park and watch matches from.

In the last week plans have been announced to automatically give a life ban to anyone encroaching onto the playing surface. Back then it was just a very irate P.A. announcer and the threat of arrest; though any charge wouldn’t result in a life ban, and arrest in the first place only seemed likely if any trouble broke out. Still, one never knows.

Stamford Bridge today; a different prospect indeed (image courtesy Brian Rice x11)

Initially I’d watched from the Shed, but then, seeing how much fun those already on the pitch were having, thought fuck it, no one’s going to recognise me in amongst that lot, so off I went, over the little wall at the front, through the parked cars—amazing to think it used to be like that—and onto the pitch where I ran full pelt to join the party.

On the way home I bumped into a fellow Chelsea fan in the elevator at Kennington Tube; not uncommon to see this guy and his kid on the return journey and exchange some thoughts on the match. ‘Have fun invading the pitch?’ he asked, before adding that I’d stood out like a sore thumb. I remember that more than being on the turf!

* * *

Writing the review meant looking for useable images; something that also lead to encountering new information about the Tube in general.

During World War II, Londoners slept overnight in Tube stations to shelter from bombs. It’s one of those things that I, a Londoner, think everyone in the world knows. Memoirs from the time even talk of the trains still running while people slept on platforms; policemen tasked with walking in front of the train to push any overhanging limbs out of the way.

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Lesser known, even to Londoners, is that Winston Churchill initially didn’t want the stations used for the purpose (unless by him). An account by a local resident describes seeing barbed wire placed outside the Oval station—which can just be seen from the entrance to Kennington, they’re that close—to stop people getting in.

Churchill was concerned fear might drive some people to not leave again. Winston knew the Tube, so likewise what that implied. A sufferer of bad mood swings, the idea is bizarre even by his standards.

If there’s a source for his irrational fear, it’s surely H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, 1895, in which some people do exactly that in precisely the same circumstances; overtime becoming the Morlocks who parasitically live off the still dwelling above ground Eloi.

Wells liked to predict where modern developments would take humanity. He was convinced the next war would be fought and won in the air. Indeed, in 1907 he wrote The War in the Air: And Particularly How Mr. Bert Smallways Fared While It Lasted (a story in which much of the action takes place on Goat Island, Niagara Falls). In that respect he’d been proved right, something that very likely gave credence to other aspects of his predictions.

On which note: if interest has been piqued in The Time Machine and films are more your thing, for the love of God avoid the 2002 remake in which the point is completely missed and stick to the amazing 1960 version with the excellent Rod Taylor.

Also discovered on this journey: the existence of 1972 film Deathline starring none other than Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee in which descendants of the Victorian workers who built the Tube still live down there and have become cannibals. It’s currently available on You Tube in full (I haven’t watched it; this isn’t a recommendation as above!):

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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